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Incident at Sikayana

A so-called Outrage carried out upon the Inhabitants of the Stewart Islands,
by the Crew of the Austrian Frigate Novara, 16-17 October 1858


The charge of outrage committed against indigenous populations by officially-sanctioned exploring and scientific expeditions during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was not one easily dismissed. Such a charge was brought against the Austrian Novara scientific expedition of 1857-9, by a group of Australians and Stewart Islanders at the beginning of 1860, more than a year after the vessal had left the area. The precise details of the incident remain shrouded in mystery. What we do know is reproducted below.

On Friday, 6 January 1860, the Sydney Morning Herald published an anonymous article entitled 'A Visit to Stewart Islands, or Sikyana. - Strange Doings of an Austrian Vessel of War.' This communicated piece described various geographic and ethnographic aspects of the small group of islands located east of the Solomons and known at the time as the Stewart [Stuart] or Stewart's Islands. This small group of five islands, forming part of a coral atoll, are today known by the name Sikaiana and form part of the Solomon Islands group. The 'Stewart Islands' name has become obsolete, as have the spellings 'Sikyana' and 'Sikayana', though all are used throughout this article.

The Sydney Morning Herald piece contained an allegation that members of the crew of the Imperial Austrian frigate Novara had robbed the natives of Sikayana Island of livestock (pigs and fowls) during a brief stopover there in October 1858. A group of islanders were so outraged that consideration was given to the sending of an armed party against the ship. However this was rejected when it was realised that the full compliment on board the Austrian man-of-war numbered more than 300, and included an armed contingent of marines. With only some 48 able-bodied men amongst the local population,(2) such an attack was deemed suicidal, and the idea was therefore rejected. The local population was small. When Captain Andrew Cheyne visited the islands in September 1847, he recorded 48 ntive men, 73 women and 50 children - a total of 171. The population in 1999 was approximately 250 (W.H. Donner, 'Sharing and Compassion: Fosterage in a Polynesian Society', Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 30(4), 1999, 703-22.

The anonymous article spurred the editor of the Herald to write an emotive lead editorial condemning the Austrians, and bringing to the notice of his readers that country's involvement in 'the shocking slaughter of Lombard peasants which filled Europe with such disgust' during the brief Austro-Italian war of 1859. In such an atmosphere of outrage and anti-Austrian rhetoric, a short rebuttal of the accusation by local merchant and Acting Consul for Austria, William Kirchner, was lightly dismissed. The facts behind this incident, as far as they can be gleaned from extant documents and the various Australian newspaper reports of the time, are reproduced below. A commentary on the validity of the claims of 'outrage' made by the Australians and Stewart Islanders against the Austrians is included, along with a discussion on local (Australian) sentiment towards the Austrian Empire as revealed by this episode.

Incident at Sikayana

The Austrian Imperial frigate Novara undertook a government-sponsored, round-the-world scientific expedition between 1857-59. An extended, 6 week stopover in Sydney during November-December 1858 was immediately preceded by a visit to South East Asia and a cruise through the South Sea islands. Between 16-17 October the vessel was anchored off the Stewart Islands, eastward of the Solomons. The vessel had recently survived a cyclone in the South China Sea and was beginning to leak badly. The crew and scientific contingent were also wearying of life on board a crowded frigate in tropical waters, and scurvy was beginning to appear. Therefore, any opportunity to set foot on land and obtain fresh supplies of food was enthusiastically taken up, especially by the scientists who were unused to extended periods at sea. The ship's commander was informed of their desire to interact with, and study, the local natives.

A number of accounts of the 2½ year voyage of the Novara were recorded and subsequently published. The official narrative was issued in Vienna in three volumes between 1861-2. It was compiled under the general editorship of Dr. Karl Scherzer, ethnographer and historiographer to the expedition. He made use of his own diary and the various journals kept by members of the crew, such as geologist Ferdinand Hochstetter and naturalist Georg Frauenfeld. This narrative was supplemented by an English edition (1861-3) and a number of scientific volumes, the last of which appeared in 1875. These publications were not as yet available when the accusations against the Novara crew were made in the Sydney Morning Herald at the beginning of 1860.

The case was originally presented by A.C. Ashmore, Master of the Clarence Packet, and John G. Thompson, a passenger on board. They had apparently previously offered their report to Acting Consul Kirchner, but when no official action on the part of the local representative of the Austrian Government was forthcoming, they went to the Sydney Morning Herald offices to seek redress. The editor was sympathetic - even outraged - and presented their account in the edition of Friday, 6 January 1860:

'A Visit to Stewart Islands, or Sikyana. - Strange Doings of an Austrian Vessel of War'


These islands, which are situate to the eastward of the Solomon Group, in latitude 8.24 S. and 163. E. longitude, are of coral formation, elevated only a few feet above the surrounding ocean. They are five in number. Sikyana, the largest, on which there is a village; Fowny, the second; Metelator, third; Metawaby, fourth. These have each a few families residing on them; the smallest, which is a mere islet, in uninhabited. They are surrounded by a coral reef, the interior of which contains very deep water, but unfortunately there is no available passage for vessels into it, a whaleboat having considerable difficulty to get into the only passage which does exist. This is on the east side of the reef, between the northern and the middle island, and is only available in fine weather. Could an entrance be made into the Lagoon, formed by the coral reef, it would be an excellent harbour for the whalers frequenting these latitudes, for the inhabitants are the most quiet and respectful race that we have had the fortune to meet with. We were both surprised and grieved to hear an account from the natives of a visit paid by a man-of-war from Leghorn.

{Leghorn is the obsolete English term for the Italian town of Livorno, located on the western side of the peninsula, and to the north of Rome. Livorno / Leghorn was a vibrant commercial centre during the eighteenth century, servicing the Mediterranean trade routes. It is unclear how the connection was made between a ‘man-of-war from Leghorn' which had visited the Stewart islands group around May 1858, and the Austrian frigate Novara, which arrived there in October. The Novara was not 'from Leghorn' in any way. It was built in Venice for the Austrian navy and launched in 1850. Venice is located at the head of the Adriatic Sea, on the opposite (eastern) side of the Italian peninsula to Livorno. It is close to Trieste, homeport of the Austrian fleet and setting off point for the Novara expedition on 30 April 1857. The reference to Leghorn immediately raises the possibility that the man-of-war in question belonged to the Italian fleet, and not to the Austrian}

This was all the information the natives could give concerning her, but we have subsequently learnt that the vessel was the Novara, engaged on a scientific cruize on behalf of the Austrian Government. It appears that about twenty months ago, a man-of-war called at these islands, and landed about one hundred men with muskets, who began to help themselves to cocoanuts, and shoot pigs and fowls right and left.

{Ed.: The Novara arrived off the Stewart Islands around 4pm on 16 October 1858, and departed the following day (17th), at sundown. This visitation took place approximately 13½ months prior to the publication of the 'outrage' report in the Sydney Morning Herald., and not 20 months earlier as stated. The possibility therefore exists that perhaps an Italian man-of-war 'from Leghorn' had visited the islands during April-May 1858 and perpetrated the so-called outrage. Scherzer's extensive account of the visit, published in volume 2 of the Reise during 1861-2, makes reference to the fact that an English vessel had visited the atoll in April 1858, and left behind their informant, the sailor John Davis.}

None of the people belonging to the vessel could speak English, or the native language. One man had Cheyne's Sailing Directions, (8) which contains a vocabulary of the Stewart Island language; by this he and the natives succeeded in making out the names of a few things.

{Ed.: 'Cheyne's Sailing Directions' refers to Andrew Cheyne's A description of islands in the Western Pacific Ocean, north and south of the equator: with sailing directions: together with their productions, manners and customs of the natives, and vocabularies of their various languages, J.D. Potter, London, 1852, 198p. A second edition was published in 1862.}

Some of the natives who took fowls and produce for sale, had a few beads given them, and from some they took their property without making the slightest return. The result of these doings was, that the natives came to a determination amongst themselves to kill all of the men who landed from the boats; but some of the elder natives ascertained by signs and the use of Cheyne's book, that the vessel had about 300 men on board, so the Stewart Islanders, who could not muster 100 men, saw that they had no chance, and from the superior armament of the robbers, they were compelled to submit to the wrongs inflicted upon them by the representatives of a nation so far civilised as to be possessed of vessels of war, and to employ some of those vessels in scientific pursuits. Surely they could not advance the cause of science by robbing these poor islanders? who gave them no provocation to commit such a raid upon them. Neither could they advance their own commerce or that of any other country by such proceedings. What they have done, has caused these islanders to hold not only them (the Austrians) but every other (white) nation, not speaking English - in great contempt, for they have sufficient sense and experience (from their dealings with English vessels) to know that the proceeding was dishonest, and that dishonesty is contemptible whether in white or black men. Had these people been a race of savages, similar to those of the neighbouring islands, there can be no doubt but that the next trading vessel visiting their island would have been attacked, and a reprisal made, causing the innocent and helpless to suffer for the strong but guilty.

{Ed.: The natives of the Solomon Islands were often cited as fierce and even cannibalistic during the age of exploration.}

Fortunately, however, they have been brought much in contact with Englishmen, whom they appear to understand and respect, many of them have been away from their island in whalers, and some have visited Sydney; and on their return to their own land have related to their friends the wonders they have seen there, which has caused them to respect white men speaking the English language. One of these islanders told a story which he had heard from his father, who was a very old man when he died, - and, we think, belonged to some other group of islands further north. That when he was a young man plenty of whalers used to come to the islands, and that he had seen three taken and their crew massacred and eaten. That he went to Sydney, and saw plenty of ships and plenty of big houses belonging to white men; saw the white men buy and sell, work and build, and never saw them fight one another, nor did they fight him. So when he came back he told his people all he had seen, and told them that it was not good to fight white men any more.

The natives of this group are a fine stalwart set, the men standing five feet ten inches to six feet three inches in height, and stout in proportion. Their complexion is a light copper colour, and they tatoo various parts of their bodies. Their dress is the most decent we have seen on any of the islands, consisting of a short smock made of native cloth, fitting over the shoulders and chest, and a pair of dwarf trousers of the same material. The men have but one wife, and treat her with great consideration, fetching her fuel for cooking, and the food to cook. Each family have a house to themselves, which is kept very neat and clean, and the parents appear to have great affection for their children, whom they bring up with the strictest morality. It appears from their own traditions that their forefathers had been drifted to these islands from some others to the S.E., and their appearance would seem to confirm the tradition, for they have a strong resemblance to the natives of Samoa. To our ears, their language appeared to resemble that of Sandwich Island, and a native of that island who was on board of us, could make himself understood by them. We had no difficulty, however, in conversing with them, for they could all speak English - many of them well; not in the half-English half-Kanaka style usual in the islands, but in grammatical English - making such inquiries as "Who is the owner of the vessel?' and such replies as "I understand."

The questions they ask about other places shows an amount of intelligence, and anxiety to learn, which could scarcely be expected from a race so isolated. It is astonishing to find so much civilisation and morality in the absence of any missionary labour. As a field for missionary enterprise we know of none equal to it, for the way appears so plain. The harvest being ripe, the labourer only being required to reap the harvest. For situation, too, and probable advantage as a mission station the prospects are good; with the race of these islands converted to Christianity and well educated, there is a school at once formed for Christianising the whole of the Solomon Group. Such a race as this have a double advantage over white missionaries in such a work, the majority of them being of gigantic size (compared to those of the Solomon Group), and this is an object of great respect with the Solomon islanders; and their being fully inured to the heat of these latitudes, they could go through work under which a white missionary would faint and die.

The food of this race consists chiefly of cocoanuts and fish. They take great care of, and rear a large quantity of pigs and fowls, for sale to ships. The whole of their islands are densely covered with cocoanut trees, and a considerable quantity of oil could be manufactured, but the natives say they do not care about taking the trouble to make it; they have got no casks, and they can always get sufficient tobacco, &c., for their pigs and fowls.

In conclusion we would say that we sincerely hope that someone in authority will take the part of these defenceless natives, and endeavour to obtain some reparation for them, and some punishment for those who made such a wonton raid upon their property. We have always considered vessels of war as protectors of commerce, but here we have an Austrian vessel attacking helpless natives, and by example teaching them that the strongest has the right, and creating in their mind a hatred of civilised nations. To those interested in missionary operations we would say - here is a fine field - go and reap, and the seed you may gather here, sow on the neighbouring islands, and with God's blessing it shall return "sixty or a hundred-fold."


The tone of this article was decidedly pro-English. It was also sympathetic to the perceived injustice carried out against the Stewart Islanders and had a certain missionary verve. Missionaries were not successful in their efforts to convert the people of the Stewart Islands to Christianity until 1929 (c.f. Donner, op cit.). Scherzer (1861-3, volume 2) makes reference to an aversion to such attempts which was evident on the part of the local population in 1858. A convincing and somewhat restrained case was put by Ashmore and Thompson, with no obvious flaws to their argument. The fact that the Herald editor took to the issue with a great deal of gusto and inflamed the episode somewhat is a separate matter. The accusations made against the Austrians in this article, and the lack of prior action by local Austrian Consul William Kirchner - who appeared to be dismissive of it - led the editor of the Herald to launch a virulent, anti-Austrian attack via the editorial columns of his paper. He wrote as follows, in a lead article which appeared in the same issue as the aforementioned piece by Ashmore and Thompson:

[Editorial #1]

A report has reached us of an outrage on the inhabitants of Stewart’s Island, perpetrated by the Novara, Austrian vessel, which we hope, for the credit of science and the honour of humanity, will be found to be incorrect. The statement, which has come to hand from a person who has been on the spot, amounts to this: that parties were dispatched from the Novara to one of the islands, where they commenced a battle, sweeping away the pigs and poultry of the natives. When application was made for payment, the demand was treated with derision. So exacerbated were the natives, at these aggressions that their first impulse was to form an ambush and destroy any boat’s crew that might renew their attack. They were, however, warned that this would entail upon them fierce revenge, and thus, in their conscious weakness, they were compelled to submit to a violence which is only aggravated by the relative position of the parties.

{Ed.: This paragraph is an interesting 'retelling' of the published account by Ashmore and Thompson. It is perhaps a classic example of the way in which journalists rewrite a story with an emphasis on exaggeration and accusation}

The inhabitants of the island (under 200) are in a higher state of civilisation than most of the Polynesians. Generally, they are able to make themselves understood in English. Each family has its own dwelling, and the deportment of the people is highly decorous and inoffensive. It is difficult, indeed, to give credit to all the reports which have reached us of their high state of civilisation, in all its finer and more important characteristics. Their intercourse with the English, from time to time, has informed them of many subjects upon which they express themselves with considerable clearness and fluency.

Assuming our statement to be well founded, we can scarcely imagine a transaction more infamous. The wretches that prowl about the South Sea Islands, and who have brought such deep reproach upon the British name, go with their lives in their hands. They have at least to exercise craft and valour in order to evade the revenge which their wickedness might provoke. We can hardly expect very high moral principles in the skippers of small craft, who have to bargain musket in hand, and who cannot tell from one moment to another whether the people who are offering to trade with them are not preparing a snare for their lives.

{Ed.: At this point the editor is presenting a defence for, and extolling the virtuous 'craft and valour' of those British mariners who perpetrate 'wickedness' upon South Sea island populations. Defence of such scoundrels debases his whole argument against the Austrians.}

In this case, however, they had to deal with the representative of a civilised nation, commanded by gentlemen of a noble profession, and, more than this, having, in consideration of their peculiar mission, a passport against the casualties of war. Thus they have been enabled to navigate these seas in the midst of French vessels, while Austria and France have been engaged in a deadly strife.

{Ed.: When war broke out between Austria and Italy in 1859, with France on the side of the Italians, high-level diplomatic efforts resulted in the Novara obtaining a passport from the French government to sail freely through international waters without suffering attack from her naval vessels. This was especially significant for safe passage through the Pacific towards Australia.}

Having all the sacredness of an embassy, as well as all the lofty pretensions of science, we yet find them committing crimes which would have justified deadly resistance. But will those crimes indeed escape with impunity? The natives have no recognised rights - they have no flag known among the nations. They had the claims of humanity. They deserved, from their simplicity and their innocence, a most careful protection. Their property had been reared for the subsistence of their families. They were not even asked to dispose of it. Yet under these circumstances an armed vessel exercised the authority and power of a great nation to rob them as felons rob.

The reputation of the Austrian Government is not such as to assure redress. It will be more easy to deny the fact than to make the reparation. We have specimens in the late war of the style in which the Austrian commanders deal with parties who happen to fall under their power. The shocking slaughter of Lombard peasants which filled Europe with such disgust was not only admitted but defended; facts were alleged in excuse which were never made the subject of judicial inquiry, and which were simply denied by the sole survivor of the atrocious butchery. Considering the spirit upon which such aggressions on human rights have been vindicated by Austria there is reason to fear that the proceedings of the Novara will escape condemnation. There is not, however, the excuse of that plea by which tyranny usually defends itself. It could not have been out of the power of the Novara to have made compensation for the provisions they preferred to steal. The treatment of the natives could only arise from the wonton contempt of native rights which has so often dishonoured the ships of civilised nations.

A few days ago we copied an extract from an Austrian journal commenting on the Chinese difficulty in a style but little soothing to British vanity. We shall see whether the sense of justice is as powerful when the honour of Austria is in question.

We make these remarks under the assumption that our information is correct, and for the purpose of provoking inquiry. It would indeed be a matter of congratulation to clear a gallant service of a reproach which is reflected upon every flag, and which discredits the heralds of civilisation wherever such reports extend. How often have those acts of cruelty which have drawn upon the natives the vengeance of European governments been clearly traceable to such provocation as this! To a native mind there is nothing more natural than to exact from the first comer the satisfaction which unavenged wrong continues to demand. The stranger who is least defenceless, appears to be the most suitable victim to atone for the aggression of his brethren. We have no right to complain of this principle. It is often the practice of civilised empires. When a British subject is injured by a foreign State, the ultimate course is to exact vengeance from the first vessel or the first city which happens to fall under our power. We leave the country in which the wrong has been done to adjust the blame and to distribute the suffering.

Thank God there is a public opinion which even the Austrian Government cannot altogether defy. A British officer would be covered with indelible disgrace if such offences could be brought home to him. The English flag would disown him. How deep, then, would be the dishonour that would fall upon any British expedition, sent out in the service of science - claiming the protection of the world on account of the sanctity and universal benevolence of its mission, and yet which should mark its progress with pillage, and leave behind it an intense hatred and resentment for unprovoked injustice.


Such vitriol against the Austrians, accusing them of 'pillage' and engaging in a 'battle' with the islanders in order to secure their livestock, was damning in the extreme, though the editor did point out rather half-heartedly that his comments were contingent upon the accuracy of the original account.

With the accusations now made public, and the editor generally supportive of the version put, an official rebuttal was called for. This was taken up by Acting Consul Kirchner, who had hosted the Novara contingent during its November-December 1858 stopover in Sydney. The vessel's arrival in port had taken place less than a month after the so-called outrages at Sikayana, and less than 14 months had passed since the Austrian expedition had departed Sydney. With fond memories of Novara 'balls' and other festivities still fresh in his mind, Kirchner drafted a letter to the editor of the Herald as soon as he read the initial account and editorial. His comments were published the following day, on Saturday, 7 January 1860. They read as follows:

To the Editor of the Herald

Sir, - I have read with much surprise and regret the statement published in this morning's Herald as to the "strange doings" of the Austrian frigate Novara in her recent visit to Stewart's Island, which you have made the subject of your leading article, in terms of severe condemnation.

Without desiring to follow all your remarks on the alleged outrage of the crew of the Novara, I feel called upon to note an obvious and important inaccuracy in your correspondent's recital; to dissent strongly from you on the justice of your writing in the manner you have done upon any "assumption" whatever of your information being correct, and to express my belief, from my personal knowledge of Commodore Wüllestorff, and his officers, that either there was some good cause for the landing of an armed force upon the island, or that your correspondent has been greatly imposed upon, or grossly exaggerated any occurrence that may have taken place. It is almost impossible to believe that an expedition, costing the State some £125,000 for scientific purposes, commanded by gentlemen selected for attainments more than usually calculated to have a humanising influence, would be guilty of the acts you comment upon in terms of such severity, for the sake of a few pigs and poultry!

You state in your leader that most of the natives of Stewart's Island speak English, and in your correspondent's communication that none of the Novara's people did; but it is well known in Sydney that most of the officers of the Novara did speak English, and a force of one hundred men would scarcely have been landed without a number of these; and hence the necessity of referring to "Cheyne's Sailing Directions" for a native vocabulary was not either likely to occur, or very useful even if required.

I am, Sir

Your most obedient servant,

William Kirchner, Acting Consul for Austria

Wynyard-street, 6th January


Kirchner was obviously shocked and disturbed by the accusations and the unfortunate light they cast upon his countrymen and its noble scientific expedition. In replying, he would have been hoping to minimise any negative publicity generated locally and overseas by the story, especially in light of the high scientific ideals upon which the Novara expedition had been set up and executed. Famous scientific names such as Alexander von Humboldt (Germany) and Sir Roderick Murchison (England) had supported the endeavour, and the Sikayana incident, if substantiated, would no doubt tarnish the forthcoming official publication program reporting the expedition's findings. This program was imminent, with the issuance of the three volume narrative in 1861-2 and an extended series of scientific volumes to follow. It would therefore be necessary to refute the Australian claims post haste, or at least minimise their impact. At the beginning of 1860 those Austrians intimately associated with the Novara expedition were as yet unaware of the scurrilous reports in the Sydney papers, nor of Acting Consul Kirchner's defence.

As an addendum to Kirchner's letter, the editor of the Herald presented the following comment, which in no significant way retracted from his original editorial stance of the previous day:

All we can say is, that our information is derived from good authority, and which has been offered to the Consul for Austria. We do not imagine the whole ship's company are involved in the transaction; but, in our opinion, if truly described, it was a base and barbarous robbery. We cannot, with the facts that come hourly before the world, deny the truth of a statement on the ground of mere improbability. - S.M.H.


On the following Monday, 9 January 1860, the authors of the original communication went public and replied to Kirchner's letter. It was published in the Herald as follows:

To the Editor of the Herald.

Sir, - Seeing the Acting Austrian Consul, Mr. Kirchner, appears to doubt the correctness of the account of a visit to Stewart's Island, which appeared in your paper of the 5th instant, - we, the undersigned, beg to inform you that the account of the visit of a man-of-war, belonging to Leghorn, is given almost word for word as the natives of Stewart's Island related it.

Mr. Kirchner has already been informed that we are prepared to make an affidavit of the correctness of the statement referred to; and we would give one further piece of information, and that is, that when the pigs, &c., had been slaughtered, the sailors did not wait for them being cooked, but ate them almost raw, much to the disgust of the natives.

A.C. Ashmore, Master, Clarence Packet.

John G. Thompson, a passenger on board the Clarence Packet.

Sydney, 7th January.


Both Ashmore and Thompson stood by their initial statement, and added an interesting ethnographic note. Here the matter rested for a couple of days, at least within the public pages of the Sydney Morning Herald. However, on Friday, 13 January 1860, the editor issued forth with another editorial tirade on the subject of the Austrian outrage. He also republished his previous editorial, the original communication, the letters by Kirchner, and Ashmore and Thompson, and a brief extract from the diary of Dr. Karl Scherzer. The precise source of this latter diary extract is unknown. The fact that it was published in Sydney just one week after the initial complaint was raised suggests that it was supplied by a Sydney resident, perhaps William Kirchner. It is described as an extract from Dr. Scherzer's diary, the original manuscript copy of which was acquired by the Mitchell Library, Sydney, in 1939. However, in January 1860 Scherzer would still have had possession of the original. Was there a copy of Scherzer's diary existing in Sydney at the time? The official account of the voyage was not published in Vienna until the following year (1861), and Scherzer's original diary remained unpublished as far as we know. Perhaps sections of it were published in a German language newspaper in Australia or Austria during 1858-9. As it stands, the exact source of this quote remains unknown. It read as follows:

[Notes from Dr. Scherzer's Diary]

On the 17th October we landed at the Stewart's Islands, to obtain, if possible, fresh meat, vegetables, and fruit for the use of those suffering from scurvy.

The natives met us in canoes, some even swam towards us, and got in, to pilot the boats through the narrow passage of the Coral Reefs into the basin of the Island Faole.

The natives are strong and well-made people, of light brown colour; go about naked, and wear as ornament a neatly-worked girdle round the upper part of the leg; the upper part of the arm and the thigh are tattooed blue. They exchange their produce for chew tobacco and such things. Only two of the islands are inhabited. We found a white man there, who, according to his own statement, had been left against his will in April last, by Captain Ross, of the schooner New Forest.

The Novara relieved him, and before her departure he took some of the officers and travellers to the largest of the islands of this group, called Sikyana, where they arrived after about an hour's passage.

On a grassplot near the shore sat the King of these islands, and old broken-down man, with a white beard, fanning himself with palm leaves to keep off the flies. We quickly got into favour with the royal greybeard, commenced to barter, and made excellent ethnographic notes.

{Ed.: As evidence of this ethnographic activity, on 6 November 1858 Scherzer dispatched from Sydney to Vienna a large parcel of items (books, pamphlets, reports and artefacts) which included the following: * Vocabularium der Sprache der Eingebornen der neuen Hebriden (Vocati-Insel, Steward's Insel und Howe's Gruppe); * Acht Stücke verschiedener ethnographischer Gegenstande, bestehend in Fischangeln aus Muscheln und Holz, Schamgürtel, Instrumente zum Canoe-Aushölen, Fächer, Armbander u.s.w der bewohner von Sikayana. Both items are listed in Karl Scherzer, 'Das zweite Jahr der Erdumseglung S.M. Fregatte Novara', Sitzungsberichte der Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftlichen Classe der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften {‘The Second Year of the Round-the-world Voyage of the Frigate Novara', Report of the Mathematical - Natural Science Section of the Imperial Academy of Science}, Hof- und Staatsdruckerei, Wien, 37, 1859, 5-24. They are also referred to, and used, in the official publications of the expedition, issued in Vienna between 1861-75}

The inhabitants are uncommonly handsome, and amongst the women we found some very pretty faces, with dark waving locks.

{Ed.: The expedition's official artist, Joseph Selleny, took a number of portraits of the local natives, along with landscape scenes of the Stewart Islands between 16-17 October 1858. A listing of 16 known works is given in Appendix 1, as extracted from L. Popelka, Ein Österreichischer Maler Segelt um die Welt: Joseph Selleny und siene Aquarelle von der Weltreise der Novara, 1857-1859 {An Austrian Painter Sails Around the World: Joseph Selleny and his Watercolours from the Voyage of the Novara, 1857-1859}, Verlag Hermann Böhlaus Nachf., Graz-Köln, 1964, 188p}

Some came on board, where they stayed until after sundown, and during their presence the best understanding with the crew was established.


Scherzer's brief account made no mention of any unsavory incident between the Novara's crew and the native population. It was almost a footnote to the more substantial, lead editorial which appeared in the Herald on 13 March 1860. This second editorial was just as scathing of the Austrians, but it also criticised those local 'foreigners' who would defend them, and raised the incident as an example to commanders of all vessels sailing the Pacific to defend the rights of indigenous populations. This high-minded editorial reads as follows:

[Editorial #2]

We know of no function of the Press more sacred than the protection of the weak, nor any means which are likely to be more effectual than the publication of outrages committed by the strong. It was under this conviction that we offered those remarks which have given some offence to certain foreigners of this city upon the outrage committed on the people of Stewart's Island. That strong language should be met by an equally vigorous replication is just what we might expect. By it, however, we are not in the slightest degree moved. There stand the facts as they have reached us. We know of nothing in the station or circumstances of the witnesses to discredit their testimony. It is precisely upon such evidence that we must always rely if we are to believe anything respecting the conduct of ships in the Pacific Ocean. It is not in our power to send a commission of enquiry, or to employ the system of the courts. It is, of course, easy to say that the facts are incredible, or that the witnesses are unworthy of belief, but these general assertions will have no weight with those who are familiar with the course of human affairs.

There are some persons who try to make themselves merry with the natives, whose pigs and poultry were carried off. To them it appears exceedingly absurd that we should call the Austrian Empire to account for the pillage of poultry and swine. It is asked whether it is possible that a nation which could spend £150,000 in search of scientific phenomena, would grudge a few dollars for the purchase of provisions? To this it may be replied that it has never been affirmed that the Austrians as a nation, have coveted the pigs and poultry of the natives, but simply that people, under the Austrian flag, have thought proper to disregard the rights of property, and to commit an act of larceny. This last fact, however, is to us by no means increditable. We can easily imagine that the subjects of an empire so mixed as that of Austria could produce a fair proportion of men who have little regard to the distinctions of property. We can easily imagine that a people having so little intercourse with the native races would look very lightly upon their claim to anything that was not actually under their hands. It is not necessary that we should be driven to the absurdity of charging the Emperor of Austria with coveting the pigs of the South Seas islands, in order to make out a case of scandalous aggression upon the rights of the people. That which is so lightly spoken of constitutes their subsistence.

It would be quite possible for a marauding boat's crew to condemn the inhabitants of a small island to months, perhaps to years, of semi-starvation - to deprive them of the means of exchanging for articles of great importance to themselves, and yet for the whole amount of spoil to look very trifling against the cost of the battle of Soliferino.

The language which greets us upon the subject of these aggressions is just what we have been accustomed to for many years past. There was a time when vessels of every flag entered into contact with the natives with their muskets prepared, and considering the difficulties of intercourse wand the contempt of native life, it was not wonderful that their course was too frequently traced by the slaughter and ravages they committed. There is now too much light, perhaps too strong a sense of justice, in the civilized nations, to deal with the natives of the South Sea Islands as if they were mere "niggers." But the laws of Christian civilization have by no means an ascendancy to assure them the full recognition of the rights of property and fair treatment in their intercourse with the ships of European nations.

There is now no question that the Novara was in the neighbourhood of the island, or that the boat's crew visited the spot indicated by our report. Suspicions upon this point have been set at rest by the Doctor's journal. We therefore distinctly trace the vessel to the neighbourhood, and the boat's crew to the very beach of Sikyana. If one party visited the shore, we see no reason to suppose that others might not be equally adventurous?

An objection to the report has been raised on the ground that the natives did not encounter any persons speaking the English language, whereas it is known that several gentlemen on board the Novara were acquainted with that tongue, and it is said that making their complaints on board they would obtain a hearing from the parties who were in a condition to secure them redress. The inference, however, to be drawn is, that the captain and the persons nearest to him in influence were not cognisant of the theft.

Everything we have heard of the character of these gentlemen would discredit the idea that they could be parties to any aggression on native rights. At the same time, we are bound to remember that men as high in rank, as eminent in character, and as distinguished in morals as any of those gentlemen, have been found extremely lax in reference to such transactions. It is not until they see them in another point of view, and as they are reflected back from public opinion, that they become conscious that it is just as wrong to despoil the natives of the South Sea Islands as to commit similar depredations on the quays of Venice.

In the remarks we have offered, we reiterate a caution to our readers to receive as a report only, that which we gave upon authority which there is no ground to question. Supposing, however, the statement prove true in all its particulars, we have to repeat that every word of denunciation is due to the parties concerned whether in the outrage or in its protection. Whenever such things happen, under whatever flag, or under whatever immediate sanction, we shall deem it our duty to present them to the public in their true character- to call them by their proper names, and, as far as we may have the power, so to stimulate the vigilance of commanders that wrongs of such disastrous consequences may become as infrequent as they were once everywhere common. We repeat, we have nothing to say to those who consider the robbery of the natives a justifiable exploit, or who deny that the thing is possible, simply because it is indefensible.


There the matter apparently rested for the people of Sydney, though the story circulated amongst the newspapers of the Australian colonies. The accusation was made and local testimony presented; the editorial comment was forthcoming and forthright; and local 'foreigners' such as William Kirchner tried to mount a defence, without any firm evidence or documents to support their case. As a result, their efforts were largely rejected.

Copies of the Herald, and undoubtedly personal correspondences on the issue, were immediately dispatched to Vienna for comment and retraction. There is no doubt that the accusations and associated slur upon the country's good name in the scientific world drew outrage in Vienna from those involved with the expedition. Unfortunately the Austrian Empire was of second rank and lacked the political standing and infrastructure to mount a swift reply in such a far off country as Australia. It is unknown whether any entreaties were made to the authorities in England.

Reaction in Austria

At this point little is known about the immediate reaction of the Austrians to the claims of robbery and abuse at Sikayana. However, according to a letter to the editor published in the Melbourne newspaper The Argus on Saturday, 23 June 1860, the Novara expedition's geologist Dr. Ferdinand Hochstetter raised the matter at the meeting of the Imperial Geographical Society in Vienna on 20 March 1860. This would have occurred shortly after the mail steamer between Australia and Europe had the opportunity to deliver local correspondence and newspapers sent from Sydney in January.

During the March 20 meeting Hochstetter refuted the accusations and presented as evidence detailed extracts from his personal diary. A report of the meeting subsequently reached Australia, and its outcome, plus a translation of relevant extracts from the diary, was presented by Robert Hicksh of the Flagstaff Observatory, Melbourne, to The Age. Hochstetter had visited Melbourne and the Victorian goldfields during October-November 1859, following a period of some eight months working in New Zealand on a geological survey. During the visit to Victoria he made many friends amongst the local German and scientific community. Hicksh's letter in defence of the Austrians and the Novara scientific expedition reads as follows:

The Austrian Frigate Novara

To the Editor of the Argus

Sir, - The editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, in his leading article of 6th January last, headed "The Austrian frigate Novara," unhesitatingly, and without any reason, attributes the supposed outrageous conduct of the crew of a man-of-war, belonging to Leghorn, towards the inhabitants of the Stewart's Islands, to the crew of the Imperial Austrian frigate Novara, and commenting further on this not-established fact, which he could only have arrived at by inspiration, he has the bad tact to draw condemnatory conclusions from it regarding the scientific expedition of the Novara, the Austrian nation, and the Austrian Government.

Dr. F. Hochstetter, one of the gentlemen belonging to the scientific staff of the Novara, in a lecture given by him on the 20th March, at a meeting of the Imperial Geographical Society at Vienna, not only repudiates in toto all the statements made by the Sydney Herald, but, by that part of his diary which relates to the visit of the Novara to Stewart's Islands, clearly shows that the most cordial intercourse took place between the gentlemen and the crew belonging to the Novara and the inhabitants of those islands, and that the latter felt themselves amply remunerated for the supply of pigs, fowls, cocoanuts, &c., they themselves assisted in bringing on board the Novara.

As the substance of the article above referred to has been circulating through almost all the colonial newspapers, I should think it only fair to demand to ask for an insertion of its contradiction; and as your paper, from its elevated tendency, has always shown itself the champion of the unjustly accused, I most respectfully request you to give the following translation of a part of Dr. F. Hochstetter's diary (all remarks touching upon scientific matters have been omitted) a space in your paper:-

From the Diary of Dr. F. Hochstetter

"On board the Novara, October 16, 1858

At daybreak, at a distance of about 12 miles towards S.E., we got in sight of the Stewart's Islands, a group of low and well-timbered coral islands, but as we continually had to tack against the south wind, it was only at 4 o'clock p.m. that we were at the western side of the islands, protected against the high S.E. sea, at a distance of five miles. When we were at dinner the watch reported shallow water, but the commander, on going on deck, could not see anything, and soon came back. Shortly after boats were reports, and at 4.30 p.m. the first canoe with six natives boarded our vessel, which was followed by three more canoes; so that very soon we had on deck and battery the inhabitants of the Stewart's Islands, belonging to a race of people far different from the shy natives of the Solomon's Islands. They were all tall, powerful, and truly handsome men, with open and happy countenances, and by their stout and well-fed bodies you could see that they were not in want of good nourishment. The majority of them spoke English sufficient to make themselves understood.

As to understanding their special desire of being presented with tobacco, clothes, firearms, and other necessaries, the vocabulary by Chegne assisted us greatly. They were delighted when we gave them a heap of old playing-cards, and their skilfulness was to be admired when they sat down and selected complete packs from them; and our astonishment rose still higher when some of them were beating some of our best players at .... Our visitors were unfortunately only provided with a few cocoanuts and some bottles of cocoanut oil, which they presented very readily to our sick; but they promised that if we were willing to send some of our boats on shore, their own being too light, they would supply us with as many pigs, cocoanuts, bananas, and fowls as we might require.

The monotony during a long and tedious voyage was agreeably interrupted by our intercourse with these natives, and we felt indeed homely, when we heard them call each other by European names, such as Stan and James, which they must have adopted of former visitors. I cannot say too much of their simplicity and good nature; and we heartily accepted of their pressing invitations to visit them in their homes, for the purpose of stacking our boats with the best of what they had to offer. After we had distributed some clothing and trinkets of various descriptions amongst them, and so earned their warmly-expressed thanks, they bid us good night and departed in their canoes for their simple abodes.

October 17, 1858

During a star-light night the commander of the Novara had managed to approach the northern island at a distance of three miles, and at daybreak three of our boats, manned with several officers, the commander, all the scientific members of the expedition, and the required crew, were launched, and rowed in the direction described to us by the natives the night previous; alas, owing to the shallowness of the channel which led to the anchoring-place at the island, we found it impossible to steer farther than to a reef guarding the channel to the north of a small island, from whence our hosts had to bring us ashore in their canoes, carrying two of us at a time; but even from this place we were still one mile distant from the principal island (Fambe), which they inhabited.

The natives still persisting that their canoes were too small to carry pigs from their island, we had to empty one of our boats, and to draw it through the channel, in which we were assisted by some powerful men of their race.

When arrived we were heartily welcomed by about a dozen giant-looking men, one young woman, who had a handsome child of about four years of age in her arms, and three old withered-looking women, who seemed to have an influential position among them, as they were always applied to when the barter of their produce for our goods took place. We received for a table-knife two fowls, for a glaring red handkerchief three pullets, for playing-cards and calico still more.

In the course of the forenoon we succeeded in exchanging our different goods for 60 fowls and 1,000 cocoanuts, the greater part of the former, though, were drowned by the canoe carrying them being upset. Shortly after, the boat we had sent for pigs to another island arrived with 13, and we were luckily provided with a piece of calico, some ribbons, and scissors, for which we got five more.

About 4 o'clock in the afternoon, the highwater setting them in, we found no difficulty in rowing with the heavily-loaded boat to the Novara, accompanied by as many natives as the boat could carry. We bade them a hoarsy farewell; and so our expedition to the Stewart's Islands ended, to the mutual satisfaction of all parties."

So far the extract from Dr. Hochstetter's diary, which needs no comment in order to refute the above referred to erroneous statements of the Sydney Herald.

I am Sir, yours most respectfully,

Robert Hicksh

Flagstaff Observatory, Melbourne, June 15.


Guilty or Innocent?

Hochstetter's account, whilst providing a great deal of relevant detail concerning the Novara's stopover at the Stewart Island, nevertheless leaves unanswered the question as to whether a group of the Austrians committed the outrage as originally suggested by Ashmore and Thompson. Hochstetter's diary makes no mention of any unpleasant incident. It does, however, record the fact that on 17 October, shortly after his group had completed their bargaining over cocoanuts and fowls, "the boat we had sent for pigs to another island arrived with 13..."

Was this boat the group of "one hundred men with muskets, who began to help themselves to cocoanuts, and shoot pigs and fowls right and left", as told to the Australians Ashmore and Thompson by Stewart Islanders and reported in the Sydney Morning Herald? Was Hochstetter and his group perhaps unaware of the actual methods used by various members of the Novara crew to secure fresh food that fateful afternoon?

By the middle of 1860, Australian residents who had read the Herald and Age reports would no doubt have been wondering what really happened on Sikayana, with evidence to hand weighing heavily against the Austrians. It seems to this author that the truth lies somewhere in amongst this mass of detail.

There is no doubt that the Novara was in the right place and almost at the right time (6 months too late?); that various members of its crew were involved in bargaining for food and livestock during the brief stay, and specifically on the afternoon of 17 October 1858; that the Novara boats (3) were eventually loaded up with a large amount of supplies, including pigs, fowls (living and dead) and cocoanuts; that the natives were reimbursed for these items with 'valuables' such as trinkets and clothing, and perhaps even tobacco and firearms. These facts are clear from the records presented during the first half of 1860.

With the appearance of the official, 3 volume, German-language narrative of the Novara voyage in 1861-2, and an English version in 1861-3, a more fulsome account of the stopover at Sikayana - at least from the side of the Austrians - was made available. Scherzer, in volume 2 of the narrative, makes specific, though vague reference to the Australian accusations in a footnote. Additionally, within the general body of the text, he gains some measure of revenge against the accusors by pointing out abuses by English sea-captains in the region, and notes the specific rejection of missionary efforts by the Stewart Islanders. Scherzer's restrained footnote dealing with the allegations reads as follows: (17)

It is perhaps a duty to our gallant companions of every grade to vindicate the Expedition once more, and finally, from certain malignant calumnies which, upwards of a year after we had left Australian waters, were circulated in the columns of even respectable newspapers, accusing the crew of the Novara of most scandalous excesses and wonton robbery while at Sikayana. It seems however needless to insist that not the slightest pretext for such infamous aspersions was furnished by any of the party who spent these few hours in Sikayana, of which we have sketched the details in the present chapter.

But the fact that they could be circulated without its being possible to contradict them on official authority points to a serious defect in our diplomatic position abroad. True, there was no respectable member of the community accredited the idle mischievous report; true that the leading inhabitants, English, American, and German, strenuously combated it on every possible occasion, and in every possible manner. Yet had Austria been a recognised power, instead of a friendly guest, it needs but little acquaintance with the etiquette of public and official life to know that the calumny must have been stifled in its birth, by the prompt action of those specially appointed to protect the fair fame of their country in these distant waters. Not till her flag floats regularly to the breeze in the most distant countries, instead of being that of a casual visitor, will Austria, and through her the entire German nation, receive the respect, and occupy that position among the family of nations, to which her intelligence, her energy, and her important influence upon the progress of civilization alike entitle her.


Despite the detailed information provided by Scherzer in the published narrative (refer Appendix 3), we are no closer to ascertaining the truth. Assuming that it was the Novara crew the Stewart Islanders were referring to in their discussions with Ashmore and Thompson, questions remain as to whether the Austrians acquired all their supplies in good faith, and whether all the inhabitants of the Stewart Islands were satisfied with the transactions. The possibility still exists that a section of the crew landed on a seemingly uninhabited island and slaughtered livestock, perhaps unaware that they were destroying the property of the locals. This group may indeed have been indifferent to any subsequent protests. The problems with communication between the islanders, who supposedly spoke English, and the crew of the Novara, many of whom spoke only German, Italian or Hungarian dialects, would have exacerbated any attempts by the locals to obtain redress. Whatever the case, the Novara weighed anchor on the evening of the 17th, shortly after completion of the bartering session. Its crew may have been blissfully unaware of any ill-feeling on the part of the local inhabitants prior to the appearance of the reports in the Sydney Morning Herald some 14 months later, and the arrival of those reports in Austria some 3 months after this.

No official Austrian report on an 'incident' between members of the Novara crew and the inhabitants of the Stewart Islands has come to light, and the official published reports - Scherzer's and Hochstetter's - speak glowingly of friendly relations between the two groups. This is not to suggest that no such account was written, though it seems unlikely.

Even if the incident did occur, then it probably would not have appeared in Hochstetter's ongoing account of the voyage, which was published in installments within a Viennese newspaper during 1858-9. These pieces by the ship's geologist were light on science and full of social and ethnographic detail. They were meant to promote the scientific endeavour and ideals of the expedition, and report on the success in showing the Austrian flag around the world. Reportage on a so-called 'outrage' at a distant South Seas island would not have been in the long-term interests of those both within and without Austria who supported the expedition and its values of open scientific investigation, for the good of all mankind.

The account by the Australians Ashmore and Thompson has a ring of truth about it, and indicates that there was some ill-feeling present amongst the natives during the latter stages of the visit, and following the departure of the vessel. Whether this vessel was the Novara is debatable. Whether the incident deserved the treatment given it by the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald is a question perhaps more easily addressed. In light of the second-hand nature of the account by Ashmore and Thompson; the extended time between the incident occurring and its reportage; the absence of a first-hand account from the natives; and the lack of initial testimony from any person directly connected with the Novara expedition to defend the claims, it was not prudent of the editor to make such a severe judgement against the Austrians. When a reply came back from Austria in June 1860 would have been a more appropriate time to consider the weight of evidence and pass judgement.

Whatever the truth regarding the encounter between the inhabitants of Sikayana Island and the crew of the Novara on 17 October 1858, the words of the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald were influential and widely read throughout New South Wales and the other Australian colonies at the beginning of 1860. They would have had a negative effect on Australian opinion of the Austrian Empire and its diverse population. Whilst many in Sydney held pleasant memories of the visit to Australian shores in 1858 of an exotic Austrian man-of-war bearing a distinguished scientific contingent and a genuine venetian gondola - and of the extended visit to Victoria in 1859 of Dr. Ferdinand Hochstetter - the reports of the Sikayana incident would have undoubtedly soured those memories. Based on the evidence to hand, i.e. the single report by Ashmore and Thompson, and the clear denials by Scherzer and Hochstetter, this assessment was perhaps unwarranted.


Appendix 1

Joseph Selleny's Drawings of the Stewart Islands

The following listing is extracted from Popelka (1963) and includes brief details on the known pencil sketches, watercolours, and published engraved views arising out of Joseph Selleny's visit to the Stewart Islands group between 16-17 October 1858.

1. Boot mit Ausleger. Stuart Islands (Watercolour, P731)

2. Canoe mit Auslegen der Eingeborenen von Sikyana (Engraving)

3. Eingeborene der Stewart-Inseln. 16 Oct. 1858 (Pencil and watercolour, P732)

4. Eingeborene der Stewart-Inseln. Oct. 58 (Pencil and watercolour, P733)

5. Eingeborene der Stewart-Inseln. (Pencil and watercolour, P734)

6. Eingeborenenhutte auf Sikaiana (Stewart-Inselen) - Inscribed: 'Stuart's Islands. 17 Oct 58' and 'Fawl Island grun des Meeres viel heller als der Himmel' (Watercolour, P735)

7. Fawl Island (Watercolour, P736)

8. Stuart Island. 17 Oktober 1858 (Watercolour, P737)

9. Weib mit Kind von Stuart Island. 17 Oktober 1858 (Watercolour, P738)

10. Mann von Stuart Island. 17 Oktober 1858(Watercolour, P739)

11. Eingeborener von Stuart Island (Watercolour, P740)

12. Einwohner von Stuart Island. 17 Oktober 1858 (Watercolour, P741)

13. Eine Gruppe derselben. 17 Oktober 1858 (Watercolour, P742)

14. Ein Mann von dort (Watercolour, P743)

15. Charakter-Figuren. 17 October 1858 (P744)

16. Charakterkopfe. Stuart Islands (Watercolour, P745)


In the compilation of this article I would like to thank George Vladar of Canada, and Dr. Tom Darragh of the Victorian Museum, Melbourne. Site last updated 5 March 2001.

Index | Ship History | Scherzer Diary | Expedition Narrative | Sydney | Selleny | Bibliography | Novara Expedition
Hochstetter I | Blanche Mitchell Diary | Minnie Mann Diary | Hochstetter II | FitzRoy Dock | Scherzer in Sydney
Frauenfeld Diary | Incident at Sikyana | Sydney Chronology | Appendicies
| Lissa 1866 | Ferdinand Maximillian